Gregarious people tend to have a wide circle of friends; they enjoy social contact, like to be with people, and have a knack for connecting with others and then staying in touch. When they need something they tend spontaneously to think of a person in their circle who might help or might know someone else who could.
Similarly, if they hear of something that might interest a friend, they act. They make a quick call… . This type of temperament and way of behavior is as old as humanity. And successful use of contacts hasn’t gone unnoticed either. There is a common saying to the effect that “it’s not what you know but who you know”—which attempts to highlight the greater importance of social connectedness than that of abstract knowledge. A very popular bestseller by Dale Carnegie, the motivational teacher and author, was his 1936 title How To Make Friends and Influence People. It was probably not the first book attempting to teach what comes naturally to some.
Around about the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time when the baby boom generation was moving into the workforce, the term “networking” appeared. Like Carnegie’s method, it was intended to emulate gregarious behavior on purpose and with the goal of gaining benefits in business. Networking has always had an ambiguous character. When it is practiced openly, and the networker’s desire to make useful business contacts is up front and visible, it is a kind of salesmanship. Quite a few people practice networking openly. Recipients of such attention are not offended; it is, in fact, slightly flattering to be considered important enough to be courted. When the contact-work is disguised as seeking social links or friendship, however, networking has a faintly calculating and exploitive connotation which, once it becomes known, will have the opposite effect from the one intended.
A rather benign form of networking is “social networking” that people engage in when they have problems finding a mate. This often takes the form of self-exposure in environments likely to have a fair supply of eligible partners. People start going to church again, take classes, or take up communal hobbies and sports. Very often others also participating in such activities are also seeking company. Interactions enable people to get to know each other and to test the water. Linkages are formed because of mutual attraction. Both business and social networking have been formalized, the latter in such interesting forms as “five-minute dating” services.
Business networking, certainly in its earlier stages of development, was viewed by many as a valuable new discovery, a kind of leverage with small inputs that have large consequences. But networking is equivalent to marketing a corporate identity, to “institutional advertising,” in that nothing specific is being sold except the networker’s existence—and this to one person at a time.
Networking requires concentrated attention, record keeping, and the cultivation of the network—hence it costs time and money. If the networker, realizing the high costs, narrows the field of contacts to individuals deemed more likely to be helpful in the future, networking loses one of its benefits, namely the discovery of unexpected and serendipitous helpers. The more narrowing is introduced, the more networking comes to resemble traditional forms of prospecting, selling, or simply acting in an entrepreneurial manner.
Networking has three basic components: 1) making contacts deliberately; 2) recording contacts made; and 3) cultivating the network. Making contacts means willingness to engage people in conversations (e.g., on airplanes, at parties, at concerts) and to expose oneself to others by visiting events, particularly those likely to yield good links. Showing interest in others, paying attention to them, and engaging in give-and-take are, of course, vital. Business conferences and expositions are a good venue for meeting potentially helpful people in a business context; the active networker will “work the booths” and get to know lots of people. Keeping records is central because relatively brief contacts will fade from the mind, but notes in a database will bring back the memories.
The activity requires time and effort. Calling cards must be keyed in or annotated on the back. The use of keywords for contact retrieval is helpful. Cultivating contacts means to renew them from time to time. The more is known about the contact the easier it is to do this. The networker can send contacts clippings that may interest them or call them with some news of interest and thus maintain the linkage. Children’s or the contact’s birthdays afford opportunities. And so on. The key point regarding cultivation is that networking is a two-way process between any two nodes. The networker must strive to be of help to the contact in order to merit help, down the ways, if it should ever be needed. A natural part of doing this right is to observe the usual courtesies: people should neither be neglected nor smothered and badgered.
Networking in the Internet Age Not surprisingly, the greatest network of them all, the Internet, has been harnessed to the service of networking, both social and business. In the business networking category, for example, networking clubs have made an appearance. Among them are ItsNotWhatYouKnow (INWYK), LinkedIn, Ryze, and ZeroDegrees. According to Catherine Seda, writing in Enterpreneur, “It’s simple to join, and most clubs are free or have a free level of access. Complete the registration form, invite your colleagues to join, and get on each other’s ‘connections’ lists. The bigger your network, the greater your referral opportunities are, because members click on your contacts to see who you know.”
Concerning networking in general, the last word on the subject ultimately belongs to George Ball, once Undersecretary of State in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. Ball famously said: “Nothing propinques like propinquity.”